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Race Day : March 30th 1997

Villeneuve sweeps to easy victory:

Bridgestone outlasts Goodyear

This Grand Prix marked several surprise performances - not least from tyre newcomers Bridgestone, current World Champion Damon Hill, and Prost driver Olivier Panis. Surprisingly poor performances this weekend came from Frentzen, Coulthard, and Irvine.

In the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos on Sunday, Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve narrowly managed to avoid what is now becoming a regular destiny with the first corner, to go on and take the flag and the first points on his championship trail. With the quality of both Japanese newcomer Bridgestone tyres and the well established Goodyear playing a crucial part in the overall number of pit stops a team should go for, it was crucial for Villeneuve to show his rivals a clean pair of heels. Most of the Goodyear shod cars were running a hard compound and carrying a lighter fuel load, aiming for at least two pit stops. The Bridgestones however, have proved to be a great deal more durable, allowing the drivers to use a ‘sticky’ tyre providing more grip and enabling them to go for a single stop strategy.

As the red lights went out, Villeneuve made another poor start allowing Michael Schumacher to match his pace through the series of bends called the Senna S’s. The Ferrari having taken the inside line on the first part, was being agitated by Villeneuve who, starting on the right hand side of the track, was starting to push through, to take the inside of the following right hander. Being hard but fair, Schumacher held on, forcing the Williams onto the dirt and dust just off the racing line. The blue and white car lost it’s back end and headed for a short cut accross the dirt. Meanwhile Giancarlo Fisichella in the leading Jordan decided to spin at the same point a few seconds later, rolling into the Arrows A18 of Damon Hill and causing the World Champion to take to the air briefly, damaging both his suspension and wing. "I was lucky that the race was restarted. I am not sure what happened on the first start," Fisichella said afterwards, "all I remember is seeing Hill coming up on one side and then spinning."

In Formula 1 more than most sports it is possible to see history repeat itself with regularity and so it seems that Johnny Herbert’s fears were yet again well founded, as a coming together with Eddie Irvine seemed inevitable judging by their proximity on the grid. Again at the Senna S, and, possibly taking action to avoid Fisichella’s spinning Jordan, the front wheel of the Ferrari seemed to catch the rear wheel of the Sauber Petronas lifting it slightly. As Herbert continued through the curves Irvine having lost momentum, was shunted by Jan Magnussen’s Stewart Ford. "Irvine was going slow in front of me," said Magnussen, "I tried to go round the outside of him but he must have been looking at the other mirror so he could not see me. He started coming out, and I was on the curb. I could not do much: he kept going and ended up driving over my front wheel. That was it for me."

Meanwhile back at the ranch, team mate Rubens Barichello had been left standing at the grid when his ‘drive by wire’ safety system shut the car down. "I had a problem with the throttle: it wouldn’t go, then it revved very high and the engine stalled. I was trying to put it into neutral when the marshals told me I had to get out of the car." He said afterwards. The race was immediately red-flagged and a mad scramble followed as mechanics and teams struggled to get spare cars set up and damaged body work replaced. Hill, already in the spare due to a fuel leak in his race car, had a new nose section and large parts of the suspension substituted whilst Barichello benefited from his number one driver status by bagging the Stewart T-car.

On the second start, again Villeneuve made a poor getaway, enabling the over- fueled Ferrari to blast into the lead. Ukyo Katayama stalled at the line but was able to start the race in his Minardi from the pit lane two laps down. Status quo was soon restored at the end of the second lap with Villeneuve taking the lead at the end of the pit strait and already setting an early fastest lap of 1.19.00. The McLaren Mercedes of Mika Hakkinen and Gerhard Berger’s Benneton Renault followed in third and fourth places. This was short lived as Berger, demonstrating new found set up modifications, took Hakkinen on lap four and started his charge to catch Schumacher. By lap 10 Villeneuve had a commanding 10 second lead and looked set to control the race from the front. Team mate Heinz Harald Frentzen continuing his disappointing qualifying performance, dropped from 8th to 13th position while Hill grabbed two places at the start, to run 7th for the early part of the race.

By lap 12, Berger managed to pass Schumacher on his second attempt at what became the only realistic passing point, at the end of the pit strait leading to the Senna S’s. Retirements came for Barichello on lap 16 with rear suspension problems and Pedro Diniz, who spun off a lap later suffering from severe oversteer.

Villeneuve was now 9 seconds ahead of Berger on lap 20, followed by Schumacher, Hakkinen, Jean Alesi, and Olivier Panis driving a magnificent race for the newly formed Prost team in the highest of the Bridgestone runners. David Coulthard, in the second McLaren and the winner of the Australian Grand Prix, pushing Hill for 7th place, was finding it hard to pass and was the first to stop in an effort to use the ‘pit lane passing manoeuvre’ and use some clear air on his exit to make up some time.

Both Benettons pitted by lap 23 and subsequently after Villeneuve and Schumacher had also stopped on lap 26. Olivier Panis was up to second and Hill to 4th, the Bridgstone tyres performing brilliantly. This enabled strategies for both drivers to run on only two sets of tyres for the race thereby halving their visits to the pits. These had happened by lap 36, Panis Pitting three laps earlier and Hill, after being passed by both Schumacher and Alesi on their charge to make up ground, made a 12.4 second stop and rejoined in 11th position.

Apart from a brief period when Berger led the race at Villeneuve’s 2nd pit stop, The Canadian was not to lose the lead again. By the second round of stops, Panis had managed to hold onto a solid third place having only pitted once and Hill losing oil pressure, was passed by Villeneuve on lap 63, yet another new experience for the Arrows driver who had earlier been overtaken by the lagging Frentzen. But Berger seemed to struggle at times and through no fault of his own, Hill slowed the Austrian down in his late charge to catch Villeneuve.

Irvine in the spare Ferrari had made an unscheduled pit stop to have his seat belt loosened. The spare car, set up for Michael Schumacher was not a good fit for the Irishman. "On the grid we were unable to adjust my belts properly as the straps were too short, " he said later, "The pain was so bad that I had to come in to have them adjusted by having one side undone and the other done up. I had a cutting pain all through the race, especially under braking when it felt as though my leg was being cut off."

Coulthard could not better 10th, having managed to squeeze passed Hill and it must have been frustrating seeing his team mate Hakkinen a country mile ahead in 4th place. Having said before the race with more than a little over confidence, that, if he stayed on the track he should be in the points thereby remaining at the head of the driver’s championship, after the race conceded, "It was a hard race battling to get passed Damon whilst keeping others behind me. I am amazed that so many people finished! Normally if you can stay on the track you can get in the points and win some races, but today everybody had reliability."

Three laps before the end and with a not discreditable 11th place secure, Hill’s oil cooler caught fire and he headed for the pits. As the car was covered in white foam Hill seemed in no hurry to get out of his car and commenting afterwards he did not seem unhappy about his afternoon’s work. "It is always disappointing when you get so close to the end of the race and don't make it to the finish, but I think that things are a lot better than in Melbourne." He said, "I saw I had low oil pressure and as I was coming up the hill, I lost drive. It was pretty terminal."

Villeneuve took the flag a little over four second ahead of Berger, opening up the account for Team Williams. Panis also opened Bridgestones account with four championship points. This could prove to be a significant victory as it proved that the tyres are all that they were cracked up to be and should leave Goodyear a little worried. If both Hill and Panis could run with such heavy fuel loads on soft compound tyres for over half the race and still be relatively competitive then it is only a matter of time before the top teams will start to reconsider their contractual obligations with the US tyre giant. Michael Schumacher talked for most of the Goodyear drivers when he said after the race, "Just as I expected our tyres did not maintain their performance level over the whole race. I had a job getting past Hill as his tyres were still in top condition. This lost me time which probably cost me one or two places." Ferrari sporting Director added, "Our decision to use hard tyres did not bring the advantage we expected."

Jarno Trulli driving to a creditable 12th position in his Minardi also gave Bridgestone the plug, "We went for a one stop strategy and we were right: the Bridgestone tyres are really impressive. After my pit stop I started to push hard to get better position since my car was working well. By the end of this day I get the satisfaction to have left behind me a Ferrari, a Prost and two Tyrrells cars... It's not a bad result, is it?"

Speaking post race, Berger could not help mention his tyres too, "I started my fight with Schumacher and it was not easy... it cost me a lot of time and tyres!" He said, "After I passed Michael I started to push behind Villeneuve. I wish I could have really put him under pressure towards the end but I got stuck behind some cars, like Hill's, losing time and wearing tyres, so I just couldn't do it! But my second place is good enough for now..."

Only five cars failed to finish a race of sheer physical hardship. Most drivers were wearing neck restrainers for the anticlockwise course and there will probably be some sore muscles this week. Hill put in a superb performance extracting a creditable display from a car that finally looks as though it might achieve results towards the end of the season. It is also on the cards that Panis will see a lot more podiums this season and Prost has definitely established itself as the most up and coming of the second string teams.

Frentzen yet again failed to deliver and what Frank will do remains to be seen. Talking after the race Chief Engineer Patrick Head echoed the thoughts of a lot of people in the pit lane, "Relative to Jacques, his performance was not strong. We’ve got to have a chat with him about this."

Villeneuve was serene in his victory and it really didn’t seem to stress him at all. "Once I'd passed Michael Schumacher, I was in control of the race. All I had to know was make sure none of my opponents came back at me. I'm Satisfied." He said. The road seems strait for Jacques to the Champions crown. However, a few kinks here and there would make the inevitable a little more interesting for us all.


Chris Richardson

1997 Championship Contents

Formula 1 Contents